Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Social Network

The most striking part of the film is undeniably the Facemash sequence. With Reznor and Rose's music gently goosing the moment well timed edits flash between Zuckerberg's drunken invention and the culture it interacts with (which handily, and more importantly, doubles as the reason he's doing it). It's a masterful piece of film making in every way and, aside from its technical virtuosity, the reason it is is because it's one of the few moments when the scripted dialogue isn't telling us exactly, with little subtlety, what to think about the characters.

Unfortunately this is exactly what the rest of the film is doing. The opening scene at the bar doesn't lay out the film's thesis in microcosm: it lays out the film's thesis in its entirety. Zuckerberg is presented as a man driven by exactly two concerns: (1) The desire to be loved by Erica Albrecht and (2) the desire to compensate for his insecurity by standing out from the rest. That's it. As far as scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin is concerned these two desires are the sum total of Zuckerberg's character and his chutzpah in summing up a human being with these two elements and then judging him on that basis (and this is a very judgmental film) is the element the makes The Social Network every bit as arrogant a film as it thinks the Winkelwii are people.

However this reductionist approach to characterization (which no one in the film can escape) is not the only reason why The Social Network is such a deeply flawed work. As alluded to above Sorkin can't keep his judgements to himself. Characters get little moments when they are able to make pronouncements about what drives other characters and, in the context of the film, they're always exactly right. Sorkin isn't content to let us make up our own minds about the people he's presenting - thus Zuckerberg gets to proclaim of the Winkelwii (I do love this pluralisation) that the reason they're suing him is that "for the first time in their lives things didn't turn out as planned", Saverin is able to explain to us exactly who Sean Parker is and why Zuckerberg falls for him and the helpful legal officer at the end sums up Zuckerberg by telling him he isn't an asshole - he's just trying to be one (the need to stand out to cover up his insecurity).

In making such pronouncements and aligning them so carefully with the character's behavior in the film Sorkin marginalises his audience. They do not get to interpret his work, rather they are reduced to admirers of his careful architecture. We can observe how clever his repetition of the "You'd do that for me?" line is, how marvelous its function, but we don't get to wonder at what it means. It's all there on the surface.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

SBS Capsules: Paju

South Korean melodrama Paju gets off to a rather rough start. It begins with a short prologue set in its seven years later segment before flashing back to its beginning without any hints for the viewer to follow. The odd sense of dislocation engendered persists while Park Chan-ok sets up her scenario - it's a bit of a struggle to infer character relations and scenes don't connect smoothly. I think this rather choppy opening is the result of Park Chan-ok wanting to dispense with the back story as soon as possible and get the meaty stuff. While it's a laudable strategy she probably needs to work on her shorthand.

Having said that once things do settle down and a pattern emerges of a spiral of mistakes and well-meaning but ultimately catastrophic attempts to smooth them over Paju proves to be quite a moving film and even a haunting one.  Albeit one that is somewhat hampered by a context of a struggle against developers. Too often this feels like a misjudged attempt to insert social relevance - the dispute is there but the film really doesn't have a lot to say about it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

My BIFF Favourites

In no real order they are:

1. Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives
2. Leap Year
3. Marwencol
4. I Killed My Mother: Much rawer and more deeply felt than Heartbeats this portrait of a difficult home relationship enjoys the benefits of autobiography while avoiding some of the obvious pitfalls. The closeness of the material to Dolan's own lived experience means that Hubert is not the perpetually whiny and angry teenager found in films like The Human Resources Manager and Dolan's preparedness to critique his younger self means that the narcissism of teenagers is not neglected. The nature of the disputes also rings true: The way petty things annoy us when we're already annoyed with a person, the way we pick a particular fight as a way of expressing anger about a totally different issue.

But veracity was something that Heartbeats had too. If I Killed My Mother is the stronger film, as I think it is, than it's also because its relationship has more depth than the (deliberately) shallow ones at the heart of Heartbeats. In Heartbeats the communication is amongst characters who are holding back - fearful of revealing their full intentions, of leaving themselves vulnerable to the heartbreak they ultimately experience. This hesitancy often means that the film is unable to delve beyond the characters' protective boundaries. The relationships plumbed are also new ones (the friendship between the central characters is generally taken for granted) without any history.

In comparison the characters in I Killed My Mother are not afraid of what their conversations might reveal - their relationships are negotiated in the open with all their dreams and aspirations on full display. Furthermore this negotiation occurs in the context of how their relationship used to be. The difference between the past and the future is tackled by the characters and the fact that they are bewildered by how one turned into other makes it no less interesting.

Another feature of the central relationships in Heartbeats is that they are hermetic. We are never given any clue as to how the other people in the character's lives view their quixotic pursuit of the young Adonis and the faux interview segments in between offer only oblique commentary. In I Killed My Mother both the portrayal of another mother-son relationship, as well as others' commentary on the central relationship, makes for welcome contrast and exploration.

5. Reign of Assassins
6. Kaboom
7. Lourdes: The thematic content will probably not be new to anyone whose spent as much of their lives growing up in a church as I have. Questions regarding the difficulty of believing in a good, all powerful, interventionist God in such a clearly imperfect world are not new and neither are the answers and debates within the film.

Yet despite this Lourdes succeeded for me. It represents the points of views of both the sceptics and believers accurately and doesn't demean either, even as it gently questions the latter. It also narrows the big questions down by placing them specifically within the context of Lourdes. The dynamics of a group who are actively courting miracles; whether through bloody-minded persistence, a search for formulae, or an attempt to cultivate a humble spirituality, means that the questions seem more urgent and personal. It's because of this that the characters never feel like mere mouthpieces for the writer. Indeed Hausner gets a lot of mileage out her actors by allowing them to build their characters through body language and facial expression rather than relying on her dialogue to do the heavy lifting.

On the Uselessness of National Stereotypes

"So very French."
- Overheard at the end of writer-director Abbas Kiarostami's (Iran) largely English language philosophical romance Certified Copy starring William Shimmell (UK) and Juliette Binoche (France) shot on location in Tuscany (Italy) and produced by m2k Productions (France), BiBi Film (Italy), Abbas Kiarostami Productions (Iran?) and others.

Friday, November 12, 2010

BIFF Capsules: Any Films I Choose

Medal of Hono(u)r: One of the reasons I go to the movies is for that big moment of emotional catharsis that happens right before the end. The scenario is common: our protagonist has a secret; or has been pummelled emotionally; or can't tell him that she loves him, and than finally she bursts. For better or for worse she lets it all out and is either healed or broken, accepted or rejected. It's a seductive moment, all the more so for me because I'm an emotionally private person who could never dream of bearing the kinds of raw emotions that these people put on display.

Medal of Hono(u)r is a film that never provides that moment - its protagonist is someone less like the ultimately heroic figures at the center of so many films and someone more like me. Someone who can't bear to give up the small boosts -  in self esteem, in respect - that the lie gives him. And neither does this lie become inflated to the point where it must explode. It just sits inside our protagonist and gnaws away at him. And the permanently delayed gratification is both suspenseful and ultimately heartbreaking.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

BIFF Capsules: Choice Cuts from Days 2 and 3

Carlos: Ostensibly about the notorious Carlos the Jackal Assayas' latest film is more interested in the rise and fall of Cold War terrorism than its most famous poster child. This wasn't immediately clear to me, so I exited the first part feeling a little let down having expected a probing character study and instead having seen what seemed like a stripped-down personal history. However it's clear, particularly as the film moves into its second third, that Clarlos was chosen as a subject because of his connections to a large number of different organizations and countries and because he was active for close to two decades. This allows the film makers to show us how these groups went about their business, how their targets responded and how that changed over time.

The film turns up some rather startling and intriguing details for viewers (like myself) who are not well versed in this particular part of Cold War history. There's the struggle of German anti-Zionists to distinguish, both in action and deed, the difference between what they do and the unforgivable crimes of their country's recent past, there's  the steadily decreasing willingness of governments to strike deals with hostage takers and most strikingly for me, there's the desire for governments to use these small groups in much the same way as earlier nations might have used privateers. In hindsight I suppose this latter action is something that still goes on today but words to the effect of "East German Terrorist Liaison Office" were nonetheless surprising.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Alterna-BIFF Opening FIlm

$60 is a bit much for cane toads when a bloke doesn't much care for parties so I headed out to Sunnybank to catch the Hong Kong wuxia/mystery film Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame. It was, as promised, a very  classy blockbuster and oodles of fun were had by all ("all" being me and the family sitting behind me). So I'm going to offer up some thoughts using the recent Star Trek as a comparison point - not, I should stress, with the intention of making the tired, untrue "Hollywood's lost it" point but simply because it's the last decent "pure entertainment" I saw.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Cinesparks Capsules

Cinesparks is usually the BIFF's program for under 18s however this year saw it split off into its own separate festival. I helped out, and in the process, saw some films. Or maybe I saw some films, and in the process, helped out...

25 Films, 10 Days and 1 Boy

1. Carlosdir: Olivier Assayas
2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
3. The Human Resources Manager, dir: Eran Riklis
4. Kosmos, dir: Reha Erdem
5. Leap Year, dir: Michael Rowe
6. Heartbeats, dir: Xavier Dolan
7. The Illusionist, dir: Sylvain Chomet
8. The White Meadows, dir: Mohammad Rasoulof
9. Lebanon, dir: Samuel Maoz
10. Strange Birds in Paradise: A West Papuan Story, dir: Charlie Hill-Smith
11. Marwencol, dir: Jeff Malmberg
12. We Are What We Are, dir: Jorge Michel Grau
13. Medal of Honor, dir: Calin Peter Netzer
14. Monsters, dir: Gareth Edwards
15. Caterpillar, dir: Koji Wakamatsu
16. Blue Valentine, dir: Derek Cianfrance
17. International Shorts
18. Kaboom, dir: Gregg Araki
19. A Town Called Panic, dir: Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar
20. Lourdes, dir: Jessica Hausner
21. Restrepo, dir: Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington
22. I Killed My Mother, dir: Xavier Dolan
23. Certified Copy, dir: Abbas Kiarostami
24. To Be Decided
25. Reign of Assassins, dir: Chao-Bin Su

Notes: The first question on my mind is, "Will Carlos have an interval?" If not I think I might need a wheelchair to get to the next screening. That said, if the direction is as a smooth and assured as it was in Clean I'll probably have little trouble sitting through it. 

I was originally going to see The Red Shoes but due to a schedule schnafu on my part that isn't going to happen. However said schnafu did force me to delve into titles that I didn't immediately recognise and The White Meadows in particular looks right up my alley (fantastical plot, sly political undertones and a gorgeous location - see also; Kosmos, and from last year; The Milk of Sorrow).

My anticipation for Certified Copy and Boonmee was at fever pitch about four months ago and is at ridiculous levels now. Here's to hoping that they can match their rapturous receptions. Lourdes is in my list because there really aren't enough subtle, considered films about religion, probably owing to the fact that fervent proselytizers and angry atheists tend to dominate the discourse. Monsters and We Are What We Are are there because I have a hankering for non-traditional genre stories (hence my 2000 or so words for Code 46). Caterpillar, on the other hand, is probably the only film on the list which is triggering trepidation instead of anticipation. It's there because of an intriguing handful of positive reviews and because film festivals are the places to try different things.

I have an Achilles' heel of trying to pick awards and being absolutely hopeless at doing so. So I'm going to pick The Illusionist as being the recipient of the audience choice award. Other films with outside chances are Jucy and Copacabana. Both enjoy gala screenings and plots involving friends and family coming to warm understandings (the former has sold out and is locally produced).